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Expert Advice for Making the Most of Prospect Research

February 2nd, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Database, Fundraising, Planned Giving

Whether your organization is a seasoned veteran with prospect research or a wide-eyed rookie, you should seek ways to get the most out of your investment. DonorSearch’s team has compiled advice from twenty fundraising experts on how nonprofits can make the most of prospect research in 2015.

Use tools and available resources to save time and increase efficiency

Make sure your development team is taking advantage of the various tools and resources available to conduct prospect research. New applications and prospect screening services can improve the effectiveness of your prospect research efforts. Also, explore the free resources available to nonprofits to see how they can supplement your fundraising activities. 

Elizabeth S. Zeigler, President of Graham-Pelton Consulting, says: “In 2015 more so than ever before, major gift fundraisers must craft individualized cultivation and solicitation strategies in order to best engage prospective donors and match their interests to the needs of the nonprofit.  Graham-Pelton Consulting relies on DonorSearch research culled from dozens of sources to provide informed counsel that results in solid solicitation strategies and increased confidence in the person that will make the ask of the donor.”

Marge King, President of the InfoRich Group, says: “Using simple tools like bookmarking services and Evernote can increase a researcher’s efficiency. All prospects are unique, so finding tidbits of information about a prospect’s neighborhood or business sector may be just as unique or obscure. For example, how many taxidermists have you researched? None? I’ve researched one in 15 years and it took some time to sift through sites related to taxidermy to find the useful sites for prospect research purposes. Using a good bookmarking service that allows user tagging or comments so that you may find that website that lists taxidermist fees or other obscure sites is key to efficiency. What is on the Internet today may be gone tomorrow. So, I also recommend using tools like Evernote to collect, organize, and store useful data like salary surveys.”

Chris Dawson, Senior Prospect Researcher at University Hospitals, says: “My main advice is to be aware of all the possible tools that you can use as a researcher. By that I mean that while it’s easy to pick up a subscription for a service like DonorSearch, or LexisNexis, iWave, or any of the other companies (and I always do recommend that researchers look into these companies and get what subscriptions they can), a good researcher should always be aware of other resources that may be available that they didn’t originally consider, allowing them to expand their research capabilities, often at no cost. The Foundation Center, with locations in New York, Cleveland, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Washington, are full of free resources to help researchers … and the Foundation Center also partners with a variety of local libraries and college libraries to have certain resources freely available there.  And speaking of libraries … I can’t speak to every city library out there, but we found out almost by accident that Cleveland’s public library system had a host of research resources that were freely available to anyone with a library card. We were actually able to reduce our research budget by switching over to some of the research products that were available for free, rather than paying for them. We were able to access a surprising amount of newspaper databases, biographical databases, and business databases (including one that I knew had an annual subscription fee of $45k/year) all for free. Other cities have similar research databases available through their public libraries, or via college libraries. So I always urge researchers to seek out what their public library has, as well as area colleges (many of which allow local citizens to get library cards to access their collections). In a single swoop, researchers can expand their capabilities, for no extra cost. These new sources certainly allowed us to offer better and more extensive information in our profiles, which has benefited our gift officers.”

Incorporate Social Media into your Fundraising Activities

The rise of social media has huge implications for prospect researchers. Consider how your nonprofit organization can use social data to learn more about potential donors.

Jay Frost, Senior Partner at Jerold Panas, Linzy & Partners, says: “We are witnessing the biggest shift in the history of organized philanthropy. No longer do we just reach out to new friends for support. Donors are now coming to us. And reaching out to their peers to support us as well. The universe of contributors is no longer local, or even national, but international. And we can learn far more today about what is in the minds and hearts of prospective supporters than ever before. All of this is the direct result of the social media revolution. And it is up to us, this generation of fundraising professionals, to determine if we want to be merely marketers or relationship builders. To become true advocates for philanthropy, we must pay careful attention to how people define themselves and their relationships. The largest opportunities for advancing our organizations exist at the intersection of great financial capacity and deep affinity. And the map to that intersection is available to us through prospect research informed by social media.”

Maria Semple, Owner of The Prospect Finder LLC, says: “Don’t forget to set up some “Saved Searches” on LinkedIn’s Advanced Search page so that you can put some proactive prospecting on Auto-Pilot for 2015! So simple to do and you can save up to 3 searches under a free LinkedIn account and LinkedIn will email you the search results on a weekly or a monthly basis….you decide.”

Create processes and systems to organize and implement your prospect data

Too much data can be overwhelming if you don’t know how to use it. Put into place systems that can capture the information your organization gathers and establish processes to put that information into action. 

Joshua Birkholz, Principal at Bentz Whaley Flessner, says: “Encourage your research team to move from providing facts to offering judgment. You will be well-served to leverage this function for prioritizing your work. Development will always involve sitting in someone’s living room asking for money. This activity is not easily scalable. Determining which prospects to see is scalable. Let Prospect Research help choose which living rooms.”

Thomas Sonni, President of Greater Mission Development Services, says: “In our work with clients, prospect research has been a powerful resource because of how we have learned to organize, cross-analyze, and further develop the data by integrating the findings with client-supplied giving data and local knowledge. We use our own custom rating strategy for potential gift levels. The combination of refined information translates into creating strategic tools such as gift tables, goals, campaign timetables, and particularized plans linked to how many likely lead gift candidates exist at each key pledge level. One specific example of this approach is the way we often set a minimum threshold for active giving. Then we identify which active donors meet any of the capacity criteria for significant large gifts. Looking at combinations of key data simultaneously leads us to identify those constituents who are most likely to be qualified leadership gift candidates for our clients.”

Brian Lacy, President of Brian Lacy and Associates, says: “It is important to keep donor databases clean! Prospect research is less effective when you start with the wrong addresses for too many top prospects. Limited annual giving budgets are misspent when appeals are mailed to old addresses, student callers call wrong phone numbers, and e-solicitations are never received. By keeping your donor database updated and with the fewest possible errors, you lift the fundraising effectiveness of your team and their results.”

Adam Weinger, President of Double the Donation, says: “Don’t forget about integrating matching gift data into your prospect outreach strategy. Many companies offer matching gift programs to their employees which can increase the potential value of individual donations. What’s more, some companies will even match major gifts of $5,000 or more.”

No matter what tools you use, don’t forget the basics

No amount of fancy tools, tricks, or shortcuts can replace the basics of fundraising. It is important to remember that your organization should not lose site of its fundamentals as it develops its fundraising capabilities. 

Margaret Gallagher, Assistant Vice President of CCS Research, says: “Prospect Research is an integral part of any fundraising campaign. Getting the correct information to the individuals who will be cultivating and soliciting can be challenging, but seasoned prospect researchers know just where to look. After completing a screening with a service like DonorSearch, the client will assess their results and see which matches yield the most promising potential. At this point, the researcher steps in to see if there are any additional nuggets of information available that might yield a higher ask amount. I liken getting all the information about a prospect to putting a puzzle together. You need Biographical information, like address, education, date of birth, and any other pieces of information you can find. Corporate information can provide the most interesting piece of the puzzle in that it may include compensation. Honors, awards, and corporate affiliations give you some insight into the personal behavior of your prospect and just how engaged he or she is with their community. Wealth Assessment information can include real estate values, stock holdings, other director compensation, lawsuit winnings or any other information obtained that affects the monetary piece of the pie. Finally, charitable contributions will show you where and in what amounts your prospect has given in the past. Don’t forget to include political donations. The best indicator of future giving is the prospect’s history of past giving.”

Don Souhrada, Vice President of Ter Molen Watkins & Brandt, says: “It’s important to be focused on a group of people that you want to bring to conclusion. For example, when you screen an entire database, you can get greedy when evaluating potential prospects. Instead of running too quickly through your list of prospects, try focusing on a small group of high potential donors to bring them to resolution and foster a positive perception of your organization.”

Alison Sommers-Sayre, President of APRA, says: “The promise of technology is great and one we should all embrace, but we must beware of being led astray by that promise. Today we need highly skilled prospect development professionals more than ever, to navigate the tools available, to use them effectively and at the end of the day to do the critical analysis and investigation that turns all of that data into something on which our fundraising partners can act.”

Poonam Prasad, President of Prasad Consulting & Research, says: “The new trend in Prospect Research is a focus on Data Analytics and Visual Analytics. These are amazing new tools for understanding and presenting large volumes of information. However, not too long ago, I attended a presentation about a very large billion dollar campaign at an Ivy-League university. In the end, the campaign succeeded because of less than 10 transformational gifts from donors who had been cultivated over a long period of time. Be sure you never lose sight of who your top 10 donors are, or could be, as you review and present data using the trendiest new tools.”

Sarah Bernstein, blogger at the The Fundraising Back-Office, says: “Capacity assessment has an important place in prospect research and fundraising strategy, but it is not the only language in which the story of a prospect can be told, and it never paints a complete picture. You can use capacity to prioritize prospects, but you should make the most of prospect research by looking beyond the numbers to discover relationships, interests, and conversation starters. Prospect research has a role at every stage of the cultivation cycle. As I wrote in my final presidential column of the APRA Wisconsin newsletter, The Research Report, last year: ‘Our goal in ratings, profiles, and bios should always be to tell a story that creates interest and informs the development of a donor-centric strategy, whether the immediate next action is to make the first phone call, cultivate affinity for our mission, solicit a gift, or steward a lifetime of generosity.’ Prospect research increasingly needs to leverage both familiar and emerging technologies to seek innovative ways to tell more compelling stories using more efficient tools.”

Make sure prospect research is always done with your fundraising goals in mind

Success in prospect research is defined by success in fundraising. Consider how each new piece of data on your prospects will help your fundraisers be more successful when soliciting donations. 

Tom AhernPresident of Ahern Donor Communications, says: “Fundraisers are sales people. They have to make a sale to a prospect. Knowing that prospect as thoroughly as possible before attempting a sale is simply the smart way to prepare. You still might fail, but you’ll fail for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.”

Jennifer Filla, President and Founder of Aspire Research Group, says: “Prospect research developed in response to fundraisers’ need for more information. The research should always serve to enable fundraising. The question to answer is: ‘Does the information I find and the delivery format enable the fundraiser?’ Too much, too little, or in the wrong format? You need to adapt and change.”

Helen Brown, President of Helen Brown Group, says: “Plan prospect identification projects in close collaboration with frontline fundraisers. You’ll get a better end product that will meet their needs and get them excited to get out the door.”

Bill Tedesco, CEO of DonorSearch, says: “It’s important for nonprofits to understand the variety of data types that fall under the umbrella of prospect research. Organizations that focus too much on one type of data such as wealth indicators are losing out on additional types of information, such as philanthropy data, which may more accurately predict a prospect’s likelihood of making a charitable gift. By compiling a complete prospect profile with a diverse array of properly weighed data points, you provide your fundraising team with everything they need to be successful.”

But remember, a good development team is more than just front-line fundraisers

Prospect researchers have a unique set of skills that can help balance out a nonprofit’s fundraising team. They can bridge the gap between the raw data and the story it tells about a specific prospect.

Diane Valdivia, President of Pinpoint Prospect Research, says: “… I think that, despite the prospect research profession’s evolution and substantial growth in the past 10-15 years, there remains a lack of understanding by nonprofit management of the value and return on investment prospect research brings. For example, if provided the staffing dollars in 2015, would the average director hire additional development officers or prospect research staff? From what I’ve experienced in over twenty-five years of fundraising — both as a development officer and a researcher — prospect research would not be a first consideration. And that’s too bad because a good researcher is not only an analyst but a strategist who is, essentially, a match-maker in finding key partners and supporters for your organization.”

Don’t ever lose sight of the ultimate philanthropic mission

While raising money is important, it’s ultimately a way to help achieve your mission as an organization. Always remember to keep your nonprofit’s mission as the focus when connecting with potential or existing donors.

Amanda Jarman, Principal of Fundraising Nerd, says: “Be effective, efficient and ethical by doing research for a reason. Know the “why” behind your research, and keep your efforts focused on the just-in-time information that’s necessary to take the next step with the prospect.”

We hope this expert advice can help you get the most out of prospect research at your nonprofit organization!

By Richard Smith
26 January 2015

About Richard Smith: I’m in charge of nonprofit resource development and blogging at DonorSearch. I’m passionate about prospect research and how quality data can improve nonprofit fundraising outcomes.

Interpreting data with humility

February 1st, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Database, Fundraising

I’ve read dozens of articles about the human capabilities we possess for detecting patterns in small data sets.  It’s why we gravitate toward simple charts.  The results are easy to understand.  It’s also why we tend to avoid complex reports, dashboards and infographics.  The vastness of the information exceeds our innate abilities for easy pattern identification.

Which leads to a common pitfall: “a little knowledge makes people believe they are more expert than they really are.”  Quote from Pearl Zhu, blogger at Future of CIO.


As we take bold strides in 2015 to compile robust reports and data visualizations, let’s remember to be inquisitive about our data, examine preliminary findings with curiosity rather than certainty and seek to fully understand the context of our results.  Let us remember to examine our data outliers rather than ignore or remove them from consideration.  And let us remember to give ourselves time to think.  Our best ideas emerge when we give our brains time to percolate.

By Diane Korb
January 14, 2015

Keeping It Clean and Simple

January 13th, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Annual Giving, Database, Fundraising

List hygiene might not be at the top of your list of key focus areas when it comes to building a successful direct-marketing program, but it should be. I think of list hygiene like a car’s engine. It’s not the flashy part of the car, and it’s not something that you might think of every day; but if neglected, it could significantly reduce your car’s performance.

To ensure you’re building a solid, clean donor list, use business rules to determine what constitutes a valid donor record. For example, do you need to have a full name and complete address? Or is it sufficient just to have a last name, street address and ZIP code? You’ll also want to centralize who has access to make changes to a donor’s record to ensure the proper rules are being followed. Make sure you have your donor file NCOA’d at least annually so you have the most up-to-date addresses, and also perform database maintenance to merge duplicate records or duplicate names within a household based on business rules.

For e-mail records, make sure you identify bounce-backs. You should make the effort to update all e-mail addresses to valid addresses, but if you can’t, flag them as “do not e-mail.”

Whether you implement these ideas or others, take time to “tune up” your donor list. It will help you achieve maximum results.

By Brian Cowart

Brian Lacy and Associates provides NCOA Screenings and more powerful Advanced Address Correction services.

Brian Cowart is senior director of direct-mail donor acquisition and cultivation at ALSAC/St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. He can be reached via

The All-Inclusive Trap: Why Your Business Should Think Twice about One-Stop Software

When I travel, I’m not really an all-inclusive resort kind of person. I understand the allure – It’s nice to have everything taken care of and just kick back with a margarita. But it’s never quite that easy, is it? Sometimes you’re stuck with food you don’t like or the atmosphere feels canned or you just want to be able to make your own choices.

And that – by way of analogy – is exactly how I feel about enterprise software. We’re living in an era when all-inclusive business software is rearing its head again. Back in the day, these kind of comprehensive suites were de rigueur, designed to handle everything from marketing to sales and customer service, all in one package. They were billed as seamless, end-to-end solutions for bringing diverse business function online and into the digital age.

The reality, of course, was often quite different. A suite that was great at handling customer relations management might be a stinker when it came to marketing. One might excel at e-commerce but be a dog when it came to sales. The problem was you were locked into the whole shabang. These end-to-end solutions also tended to be enormously complex. Implementation was costly, training was time-consuming and switching to a different vendor was a nightmare. Once a business locked into a particular suite, they were essentially stuck with it.

Then along came the cloud in the late ‘90s, which helped to change everything. The convenience of the cloud – no need for servers, or hardware or mega-suites – gave companies newfound freedom to cherry-pick so called “best-of-breed” software for particular jobs. So the sales team could evaluate and sign up for exactly the SaaS (software-as-a-service) tools it needed, as could the customer service team, the marketing team and so on.

The revenge of monster suites 

Over the past several years, however, an arms race has quietly accelerated among software’s biggest vendors. Their aim: to bring the end-to-end software model to the cloud. These companies are offering clients ever more extensive suites of products. Even Salesforce, for example, once the poster child for focused, best-of-breed solutions, has expanded from its initial sales cloud to offer a service cloud and a marketing cloud, each packed with a full suite of associated products. To be clear, these new suites aren’t closed in the old-fashioned sense – They do integrate with outside applications (thousands, in fact, in the case of Salesforce). But at their core is a fixed set of components. Venturing outside – even for superior software – often becomes a huge headache.

The result is a classic case of software history repeating. The new wave of “all-inclusive” clouds come with many of the very same caveats as old-fashioned, end-to-end suites. Some of the native products will be great, others will inevitably leave something to be desired. But, to one degree or another, you’re locked into the core offerings. This inconvenience is compounded by the fact that – by design – these core products generally don’t play well with outside programs, especially competing ones. (This is akin to Apple’s “walled garden” approach, i.e. designing devices and apps that don’t integrate with third-party products.) So if your marketing team has a favorite program or your sales team has come to love a particular piece of software, they may well be out of luck, depending on the suite you choose. In other words – to continue my travel analogy – many big vendors today want you booked at their all-inclusive software resort, whether you like it or not.

In praise of open ecosystems

But there is hope. Just as big software vendors are consolidating offerings into monster suites, there is a counterpush among independent vendors committed to a very different idea: preserving an open ecosystem. These companies design software that’s compatible with as wide a range of applications as possible. Their offerings are built to plug-and-play with third-party products and apps and exchange data freely. They boast open APIs so collaborators and even competitors can build off of their platform, adding integrations and specialized tools.

The result is that clients aren’t locked into a single, defined suite of services; instead, they can incorporate the tools they are already using and familiar with or whatever promising new tools come on the market. The CMO can choose the specific, best-of-breed applications that best serve his team’s needs and the VP of sales can choose the applications that best serve her team’s needs. When built right, these tools are mutually compatible, sharing data and functionality through smart integrations.

This is the approach, for example, that I’ve built my company around. Hootsuite is the core of an ecosystem that integrates with hundreds of best-of-breed marketing, sales, social media and customer service apps, from marketing automation tools like Marketo to customer experience apps like Zendesk, sales tools like SugarCRM, social networks like YouTube and Instagram, and more. The ecosystem is exhaustive, not exclusive: If there’s a great tool out there, we find a way to work with it.

This idea of open exchange transcends business software – It’s the essence of the digital era. The Internet flourished precisely because its working parts were compatible with one another and information flowed freely through open, standard protocol. The growth of walled gardens – proprietary silos of information, sealed off inside apps, social networks and devices – has of late challenged that paradigm. In one respect, the new wave of proprietary monster suites from big software represents a similar kind of threat.

But there is a safety valve. The very transformations that Salesforce and other cloud giants ushered in – low-cost, subscription software, streamed over the Internet – ensure that their quest for enterprise software domination will run into some serious hurdles. These days, the best solutions for specific office needs are literally a click away. Cloud-based, SaaS products – for customer support or sales or marketing or even social media – are easy to sign up for and try out. Superior tools tend to gain a following organically, often bypassing the IT department entirely. In democratic fashion, the best rise to the top. In this climate, the idea of companies locking themselves into high-priced, limiting suites of software seems quaint and a bit backward. After all, who wants to be stuck in some cookie-cutter all-inclusive when there’s a whole world out there to explore?

June 16, 2014
By CEO at HootSuite


CharityCAN Partners with Lakehead Researchers on “Big Data” Project

June 19th, 2014 | 2 Comments | Posted in Canada, Database

Local Business Partners with Lakehead Researchers on “Big Data” Project

June 16, 2014 – Orillia, ON

A local web-based business has recently partnered with a Lakehead University software engineering team to develop a software system that will help bring the company to a leading edge position within its market.

Third Sector Publishing, based in Orillia, has an online resource, CharityCAN, which provides information on over 85,000 Canadian charities and foundations, as well as on the individuals and organizations that donate to them. In cooperation with the Globe and Mail, the company recently launched the “Top 1,000 Non-Profits Report,” modelled on the Globe’s Report on Business ranking of corporations.

The project with Lakehead is focused on the rapidly growing new research field of “big data,” the term used to describe the vast and complex amount of data available online.

“For any business that relies on the organization and retrieval of online data, this exponential growth – caused by continually increasing computer power – is a challenge,” said Anderson Charters, president of Third Sector Publishing. “The more complex our data becomes, the more important it is that we have sophisticated methods and tools to automate search tasks.”

Under the direction of Lakehead’s Dr. Rachid Benlamri, professor of Software Engineering at the Thunder Bay campus, a research team including two Master’s students and two research assistants are working with Third Sector Publishing to develop a software system to automate the content search requirements of CharityCAN.

“This groundbreaking research is an exciting project for us, as there has not many papers studying ‘big data’,” said Benlamri. “Our students have the opportunity to apply their knowledge and creativity to cutting edge research and witness, first hand, how it will be used in a real company.”

The project is funded in part by the Ontario Centres of Excellence, which sees this project as just the first step in what could lead to bigger projects in the near future. Two federal funding bodies, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and Connect Canada, also support the project.

“We are extremely fortunate to have the opportunity of working with Dr. Benlamri and his research team,” said Charters. “The software and information technology developed from this project will help CharityCAN become more effective and solidify its leading position in the non-profit prospect research market.”

For more information on the CharityCAN Canadian research service contact Brian Lacy 860-478-9291,


Photo cutline:

Members of a Lakehead University business partnership team working on a state-of-the-art project in the new research field of “big data” (l–r): Lakehead University research assistant Greg Hill; Jamieson Bruce, Third Sector Publishing; Third Sector Publishing President Anderson Charters; Lakehead University student Kyle Galvin; Dr. Rachid Benlamri, Professor, Lakehead University; and Tim Charters, Third Sector Publishing.

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